From Jail Cell to Family Man

I met Balan on my 2nd trip to India in 2001. Balan was somewhat of a celebrity among the Indian stone artists of the small fishing village of Mamallipuram, India because he had a golden tongue that could seal the deal with any of the visiting tourists for exporting any of the furniture or statues they purchased locally.  His celebrity brought me knocking to his door one evening looking for someone to help me export my statues that I purchased for my budding company Lotus Sculpture.

He is a character taken right out of a Bollywood movie cast as the criminal or crime boss.

My first thought as I saw Balan was; “Thug”.  He is a broad boned, heavy set man with balding hair, gaps in his teeth and skin the blackest color of night.  He is a character taken right out of a Bollywood movie cast as the criminal or crime boss.  I’m not going to say I trusted him immediately because I didn’t.  That took time.  His bachelor pad as he referred to it was a rented three room space that was formerly the town jail complete with bars in the windows and that feeling that some unsavory things took place there.  This only assisted my first impressions of my future shipper.  Balan was also a budding artist who had two marble artists in his employment.  I looked at his marble work and was impressed.  That night we worked over some of the details of my export and his golden tongue went to work on me and I was won over by his sense of humor and keen business acumen.  Today he is my best friend in India.

With each passing year Balan’s business has continued to grow.  From day one we forged a strong business relationship where I would pretty much buy every Hindu marble statue he produced.  I was his only customer.  His work he called “Masala statues” where he would mix together different aspects of different gods in poses that were not typical and never produced before.  His work was fresh and new and I loved it.  With each passing year I would see how much he had grown and each time he would thank me and tell me it was all from me.  I was, after all his only customer.  View Balan’s red marble and black marble Hindu Statues.

Now Balan is married to his wife of 6 years, Aril.  He has two adorable children, Akash 2, and Adittya 5, and a workshop of 30 men working for him.  Akash is an eater.  When I first held her she tried to bite me by taking a nibble out of my arm I guess it was her only defense against her older sister.  Addy is a talker and continually speak to me in Tamil even though I don’t understand a word.  Both love photos and on each visit to the house they would take out pictures of me holding them when they were babies and keep putting them under my nose to look at.
Their little friends in the neighborhood call me the “big white man”.  Akash got very confused because she thought my name was “uncle”.  She asked Balan who is “big white man”? in her high pitched little girl voice and we had a laugh over this.

My favorite days in India consist of sitting under his large Banyan tree he has in his workshop/home with Akash and Addy crawling around causing trouble, which is what we did this Sunday.  It was unbearably hot so we just stayed put and played with the kids as we talked about future plans for each other.  His workshop has grown so much in the past couple of years.  I am no longer his only customer.  He is building a temple in Mumbai and is starting on plans for a temple in London!  It is amazing how much has changed in 10 years.

Sometimes I feel like I have a double life.  I have my life in the USA consisting of my family and friends.  Then I have my life in Asia filled with a different group of family and friends.  Most of the artists I work with are similar in age to me and thus I have grown as they have grown.  As each has married and had children I have been there to see them as babies and watch them grow up.  Having Addy and Akash crawling around me like I am a jungle gym calling out “uncle” whenever they want to get my attention fills me with love for them.  The connection to my artists and their families only grows with each trip I take.  I am so thankful for having these special relationships half way around the world.  They are my 2nd family and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Things have come so far since my first meeting with Balan in his bachelor-pad, jail cell home. My “thug” best friend has a beautiful family and business is great!  I couldn’t be more happy for him!

Large Hanuman statue

Balan and I together with a seated Hanuman sculpture